Europe's wild snakes could face a growing threat from a fungal skin disease that has contributed to wild snake deaths in North America, according to an international collaborative study, led by conservation charity ZSL (Zoological Society of London) alongside partners including the U.S. Geological Survey. The new study is published in the journal Scientific Reports.
Caused by the fungus Ophidiomyces ophiodiicola, snake fungal disease (SFD) can lead to symptoms including skin lesions, scabs and crusty scales, which can contribute to the death of the infected animal in some cases. SFD was first recognised in wild snakes in eastern North America around a decade ago. Prior to this study, the only wild populations found to be affected had been those in the central and eastern United States.
Now, an analysis of samples collected from wild snakes in the United Kingdom and the Czech Republic between 2010-2016 has confirmed the presence of the pathogen and SFD in Europe for the first time. While the disease poses no known risk to humans or livestock, scientists are calling for further research to fully understand the significance of SFD to Europe's snake populations.
Lead author and wildlife veterinarian Dr. Lydia Franklinos said: "Our team at ZSL found evidence of SFD in grass snakes (Natrix natrix) from the UK and a single dice snake (Natrix tessellata) from the Czech Republic. The analysis found that the fungus strains from Europe are different to those previously identified in North America - suggesting that rather than being introduced across the Atlantic, or vice versa, the disease could have been present below the radar in European snakes for some time.
"Of all terrestrial vertebrate wildlife, we probably know least about health conditions that affect reptiles such as snakes, so this study represents an important milestone and one that will hopefully encourage greater focus in understanding the threats facing these animals."
Dr. Jeffrey Lorch, a microbiologist with the USGS National Wildlife Health Center and the study's co-author, said: "The fungus that causes SFD is already known to occur across the eastern half of the U.S. and infect over 20 species of snakes. Comparing how SFD affects wild snakes on different continents may help us pinpoint the factors causing the disease to emerge and help managers identify mitigation strategies."
The increasing emergence of deadly fungal pathogens - including white-nose syndrome in bats, chytridiomycosis (chytrid) in amphibians and SFD in snakes - is of grave concern to wildlife disease experts worldwide. To learn more about ZSL's work on wildlife health, including citizen science opportunities, please visit: https:/
'Emerging fungal pathogen Ophiodiomyces ophiodiicola in wild European snakes'
- Dr Silviu Petrovan, co-author and Trustee, Froglife: "Snake populations in the UK face many threats, from habitat loss and fragmentation to human persecution and many populations are vulnerable. Understanding the role of disease could be crucially important if we are to protect reptiles in the UK".
ZSL (Zoological Society of London):
Founded in 1826, ZSL (Zoological Society of London) is an international scientific, conservation and educational charity whose mission is to promote and achieve the worldwide conservation of animals and their habitats. Our mission is realised through our ground-breaking science, our active conservation projects in more than 50 countries and our two Zoos, ZSL London Zoo and ZSL Whipsnade Zoo. For more information visit http://www.
The USGS provides science for a changing world. For more information about USGS wildlife health research, please visit the USGS National Wildlife Health Center website.
Garden Wildlife Health:
Garden Wildlife Health is a collaborative project between ZSL (Zoological Society of London), the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), Froglife and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), which aims to safeguard the health of British garden wildlife by conducting research into the causes and trends of diseases in a variety of species (garden birds, amphibians, reptiles and hedgehogs), and investigating their impacts on the affected populations. The project receives funding from the UK Department for the Environment Food & Rural Affairs and Welsh Government through the Animal Plant & Health Agency's Diseases of Wildlife Scheme Scanning Surveillance Programme (Project ED1600), the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, and the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare.
Department of Ecology and Diseases of Game, Fish and Bees, University of Veterinary and Pharmaceutical Sciences Brno, Czech Republic:
The UVPS Brno is the only university in the Czech Republic specializing in veterinary medicine, veterinary hygiene and ecology. The department's education and research investigates environmental damage caused by pollution and diseases which affect wildlife and livestock health. Part of the department specializes on emerging fungal diseases including white-nose syndrome in bats and chytridiomycosis in amphibians and collaborates with veterinary and nature conservation authorities.
The Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (ARC) Trust:
ARC is a national wildlife charity committed to the conservation of reptiles and amphibians and the disappearing habitats on which they depend, and a member of the Garden Wildlife Heath project forum. ARC shared their archive of moulted snake skins that were tested as part of this study.